Old Technology Is Not Bad Technology

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Following my last article on how innovation should not be the goal of a good IT shop but rather a consequence of pursuing excellent service I wanted to address another misconception regarding technology: That somehow a technology’s age determines its usefulness.

This is a ridiculous misconception. A technology’s usefulness is determined solely by how well it solves a problem. For example, recently I wrote my grandfather a letter. Not an email. A letter handwritten with a pen on paper and sent via the U.S. Postal Service to his home.

Some people will focus on the word “grandfather” and jump to the conclusion that because he is older than I (well into his eighties now) that this is the reason that I must write him a letter instead of just emailing him a message. Nothing could be further from the truth. My grandfather is fully capable of using email if he chose to do so, but sending him an email would not fulfill our true need in this situation (more on that later).

On the flip side I also know people who tell me “I do not use email. It is old. I only use the latest technologies.” These people are not wrong, for they have a different need than most email users. Such as the immediate interaction that instant messaging provides. Phone calls are capable of the same instant interaction, but I also suspect that many of these people have a need to be seen as someone who uses only “cutting edge” technology. Different strokes for different folks.

Being an IT professional I cannot help but chuckle every time someone tells me that I must get the latest gizmo. As if only the latest gadget has merit not because of what the technology is, but because of how recently the technology emerged. I chuckle because I used to think this way myself.

A technology’s age is irrelevant to its usefulness. Do not believe me? The inventions of fire, the wheel, written language, plumbing, and mathematics all confirm that the age of the technology has absolutely no impact upon the usefulness of the technology.

Yes these technologies keep being improved upon, but it is the usefulness of these core technologies themselves that justifies the constant cycle of improvement. Abandoned technologies such as steam powered engines, gas lighting, and VCRs were incredibly useful at one time but no longer can justify a cycle of improvement. This is not to say that these technologies will not work, but their replacements better fulfill the needs that each technology was invented to provide. The technologies are no longer useful enough to warrant their continued development.

Thus a relatively new technology such as DVDs and Blu-Ray will quickly be replaced by online streaming media. DVDs and Blu-Ray discs work just fine, but online streaming media does a better job in meeting the need each of these technologies were invented to provide: The delivery of content in a convenient manner. Physical media of any type is just not useful enough compared to how incredibly useful digital streaming content is.

Wheels on the other hand have not been replaced. We rely on them every day in one form or another. Wheels are more useful than say tank treads or hovercraft for the majority of our population.

Furthermore, sometimes the better technology is still not cost-effective or even appropriate for every situation. Nail guns are great, but every contractor that I know of still carries a hammer (and most people probably own at least one). Instant messaging is great, but not as many people rely on it in the same manner as they do on the older technology of email.

Yet even though email is great it is not appropriate when I am writing my grandfather.

When I write my grandfather a handwritten letter I do so not because I want to communicate to him with my words, but through my deeds. Email is actually too convenient. Instant messaging even more so. The considerable lack of effort of using either technology makes both the wrong choice for addressing my true need. That ease of use actually makes either technology useless in this particular case as ironic as that may sound.

I send my grandfather a handwritten letter so that he knows that I value him beyond my saying so with just words. My letter shares with him my love for him in a way that only taking the time to put pen to paper and to mail a letter will convey. Even a phone call would not properly convey my true message with him, for a phone call is a conversation that takes place in the present and then is gone forever (unless you record it, and in this scenario that would be just plain creepy). My handwritten letter will traverse time. I wrote and sent it in the past, it can be read in the present, and it may be saved to be read again in the future. Yet it requires more effort than email (which may also traverse time) and thus it is the best technology for fulfilling my need – it tells and shows my grandfather that I love him.

That is the secret to making a technology decision. Understand the need for the technology first, and then choose the best technology available for fulfilling that need with second. The age of the technology is irrelevant.

Now go write someone that you love a handwritten letter. Winking smile

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